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KT Tunstall - Hammersmith Apollo

11th April 2008

Since exploding onto the UK music scene in autumn 2004, KT Tunstall has emerged as one of today's most remarkable new artists. Eye to the Telescope, the Scottish singer/songwriter's dazzling Mercury Prize-nominated debut, showcases her provocative sonic mesh of heartfelt pop, bona fide electric blues, and left-field alt. folk. Songs like the album's smash singles, "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" and "Other Side of the World" amply display Tunstall's idiosyncratic vocal gifts and distinctive guitar playing, along with a flair for imaginative songwriting, alive with gripping lyrical bite and rare emotional power.

"On the whole, I'm a positive, skippity-la-la person," Tunstall says of her album's richly textured intensity, "but I'm equally fascinated by the dark side of life and I always want to explore that. I think it's an album full of positivity but there's stuff underneath for sure."

Tunstall grew up in the "beautiful but sheltered" university town of St Andrew's. Her parents informed her at an early age that she was adopted at birth. "I grew up knowing I could have had a million different lives," she says. "It reminds you how mysterious life is and makes your imagination go wild."

That powerful imagination was also fuelled by her father, a physicist at St. Andrew's, who inspired Tunstall's youthful interest in science fiction. "My dad used to take my brothers and me into his lab when we were little," she recalls. "We played games with liquid nitrogen and Van de Graff generators. He used to take us to the observatory at St Andrew's University and he'd get us up in the middle of the night to show us Halley's Comet or Saturn. That's partly why the album is called Eye to the Telescope."

From an early age, Tunstall showed an eager interest in music, first listening to her older brother's metal from outside his bedroom door, later developing her own diverse tastes. She trained in classical piano and flute, while her characteristic singing was inspired by jazz's most inventive vocal stylist. "I'm pretty certain that I learned how to sing because someone gave me an Ella Fitzgerald tape," she says. "She was my singing teacher."

By her mid-teens, Tunstall had begun putting pen to paper, writing songs she laughingly describes as "schmaltzy love nonsense. It was a complete vomit of disingenuous puppy love, but I thought I was rocking."

At 16, she took up the guitar, teaching herself from a busker's book. She received a scholarship to Connecticut's Kent School, where she formed her first band, the Happy Campers. She also became a frequent performer at local open mic nights, where "By the second week," she recalls, "they started introducing me as their 'special guest from Scotland.'"

Tunstall returned home to study music at Scotland's Royal Holloway College. Though she had trouble putting together a band, she did manage to get her first taste of success in the campus Battle of the Bands. "I managed to win with just a mandolin player," she smiles. "It was me and eleven Goth bands and I won!"

Taking the name KT ("I needed to do something with my name to stick out of the crowd" she explains, "and as a big PJ Harvey fan, decided to follow her lead."), Tunstall soon became immersed in St. Andrews' burgeoning alternative folk scene, a grassroots musical movement which inspired such freewheeling songwriters and artists as the Beta Band, James Yorkston, and the Fence Collective. She performed frequently, while voraciously continuing her musical education by absorbing the work of artists such as James Brown, Lou Reed, Billie Holliday, Johnny Cash and Tom Waits.

In time, Tunstall traveled south to London where she began vigorously pursuing a career in music. She collaborated with an array of songwriters and producers, including Martin Terefe (Ron Sexsmith), Jimmy Hogarth (James Blunt, Boo Hewerdine), and Tommy D (Catatonia). With over a hundred songs in her notebook, she teamed up with legendary producer Steve Osborne - known for his studio collaborations with such diverse stars as U2, New Order, Suede, Doves, and many others - and set to work in bucolic Wiltshire recording her debut album.

Having recently become obsessed with the lo-fi crackle and hiss of primal blues recordings, Tunstall felt an organic approach was necessary to capture the visceral sound she heard in her head. "It's when you have to be inventive that you get interesting music," she explains. "Tom Waits says if you want something to sound like a boot hitting a cardboard box, then hit a cardboard box with a boot."

The individualistic sonic tack serves as an ideal foil for Tunstall's earnest and inventive lyrical designs. Tracks such as the poignant album opener "Other Side of the World" survey private emotional terrain - loneliness, conflict, regret - yet ultimately achieve great beauty and genuine catharsis.

"My songs examine and explore little specific emotions or situations or stories," she says. "They're kitchen table songs, like a conversation between me and one other person. I like the idea of focusing in on things we deem small and magnifying them to life-changing proportions."

Soon after the sessions were completed, Tunstall captured the UK's attention with a showstopping debut appearance on the BBC's Later with Jools Holland. Asked to step in as a last minute replacement for hip-hop superstar Nas, KT blew the roof off the studio with a stunning solo performance of "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree," beguiling the nationwide audience with her compelling vocals and powerful acoustic guitar work, looped to create the force of a full backing band.

Released soon thereafter, "Eye to the Telescope" reaped unprecedented critical approbation from the notoriously hard-to-please UK press. "The kind of record you might expect from an established international artist," declared Scotland on Sunday, "not a girl composing her first musical calling card. It really is that good, the album Fiona Apple is still hoping to grow into, that Sheryl Crow got too distracted to make, and Lucinda Williams would be proud of." "Tunstall's voice has a "gorgeous tone and fluidity, but she eschews anything too showy," wrote the Daily Telegraph's Neil McCormick, adding that "Her songs are focused, dwelling on the minutiae of relationships with a sharp lyrical sensibility and a strong sense of melody."

As if that weren't praise enough for a still-growing new artist, Tunstall also earned acclamation from her fellow musicians, including the Cure's Robert Smith, who extolled her for making "raw, edgy, sultry, lush, hazy pop music."

KT followed the release of Eye to the Telescope with a year of nearly non-stop road work, with sold out headlining shows, festival appearances, and support stints alongside such artists as Joss Stone earning her critical applause as a astonishing and resourceful live performer, "Tunstall's got a megawatt charisma of her own," wrote the Guardian's Betty Clarke of KT's February headlining gig at London's ICA. "She may be new to the ranks of stardom, but she's not going to stay that way for long."

By Summer 2005, KT and Eye to the Telescope had become a full-fledged phenomenon. She scored a third consecutive UK top 10 single with "Suddenly I See" and saw her now 2x-platinum-certified debut included among the shortlist for the annual Nationwide Mercury Prize. In September, Tunstall made her US live debut with a pair of New York City performances, scheduled in conjunction with the annual CMJ Music Marathon. Upon her return home, Tunstall was honored at the annual Q Awards, receiving the Napster Best Track prize for "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree."

With Eye to the Telescope now arriving in America, KT Tunstall is set to continue focusing her substantial energies into making music. "I'm not exactly sure what has driven me so hard," she says. "I've never questioned it. I've never had a back-up plan. I was never going to do anything else."
KT Tunstall - Hammersmith Apollo

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